GNI Hits 100 Members: Strength in Numbers

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May 7, 2024  |  Confluence Blog

By Jason Pielemeier

In April, the Global Network Initiative (GNI) welcomed our 100th member – a remarkable milestone that coincides with a turning point in our organization’s structure and approach, and sends a powerful signal about the enduring strength of multistakeholder technology governance. 100 is just a number – one more than 99 and one less than 101. But behind that number is a journey of evolution and resilience, of diversity and trust, of collaboration and impact.

From Humble Beginnings

In 2006, representatives from technology companies, civil society, socially responsible investors, and academia convened to begin a collective discussion on ways to address human rights opportunities and risks posed by new technologies that were reshaping the way people shared information. Two years later, the GNI was founded by 22 participants committed to collaborating to advance freedom of expression and privacy. What bound those pioneering founders together sixteen years ago are the same connections that continue to undergird GNI today – a belief that information and communication technologies can enable human rights at scale; shared concern about the obstacles and misuses that can undermine that potential; and a deep understanding that collaboration and trust are critical to realizing the potential of and mitigating the threats to digital rights.

Also Read: GNI: A Journey of Trust and Making Common Cause, by Michael Samway

Our journey has been a winding one, which has required members to navigate mistrust and misunderstanding and forge novel approaches to tackling risks to freedom of expression and privacy in the tech sector. Over time, we have relied on the diverse views and broad expertise of our members to identify and respond to evolving forms of censorship and surveillance, understand and guide the evolution of new technologies and use cases, and manage our organization’s growth. Our collective expertise has helped us systematically identify lessons and generate cross-stakeholder consensus around key good practices – many of which are now echoing in emerging digital regulatory approaches – including in the areas of transparency reporting, human rights due diligence, risk assessment and mitigation, third-party audits, and stakeholder engagement.

Growing from a Solid Foundation

In a world where tech trends surface and disappear with dizzying speed, how has GNI not only endured but thrived? By staying true to our core focus, while remaining open to change. Over time, our approach has remained remarkably consistent – building trust through accountability, fostering shared learning to expand our collective expertise, and demonstrating how the power of our collective voice is greater than the sum of its parts. At the same time, the constant tension inherent in multistakeholder collaboration has pushed us to evolve the ways in which we undertake these activities.

For example, while GNI remains focused on the interactions between governments and technology providers, our efforts have expanded in response to the growing use of information communications technologies across the globe and societies’ increasing dependence upon them. This alacrity has helped us attract companies from diverse regions, such as the South Africa-based MTN Group and Myanmar-based Frontiir, as well as those providing critical and novel services, such as Cloudflare and Zoom.

Similarly, as the range of companies going through GNI assessments has grown (we expect 15 companies to undergo assessment in our next cycle) and the regulatory complexity they face has increased, we have evolved our approach to ensure that it continues to provide expert-driven guidance and feedback to companies based on their diverse business models and regulatory exposure. We have also enhanced opportunities for non-company members to participate in assessment and shifted to a rolling assessment approach to improve the range of expertise available and make the process more efficient.

Extending our Footprint

As our membership has grown, we have expanded and empowered committees and working groups to create more spaces for engagement and interaction. In addition, we have hired staff, including in Europe and Asia, to extend our presence and better service our members across a range of regions and timezones.

Last year, GNI organized its first board meetings in Global Majority contexts – first in Nairobi, Kenya alongside the Digital Rights Inclusion Forum (DRIF), and then in San Jose, Costa Rica on the margins of RightsCon. In addition, GNI staff participated in and engaged with members at events across the US and Europe, as well as in Brazil, India, Pakistan, South Korea, Japan, and Thailand.

The Proof is in the Pudding

There are many ways to gauge organizational success, but for a global multistakeholder initiative the most important indicator is participation. We have worked hard to expand our engagement around the world, including through our pioneering Emerging Voices Fellowship. And we have been delighted by the extent of interest that GNI continues to generate, as illustrated by the growth of our membership across all constituencies and regions.

GNI’s civil society constituency, for instance, now includes research, advocacy, and network-based organizations that work at the local, national, and regional levels in every region of the world. We’ve recently welcomed the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), leading a network of 3000+ investigative journalists and fact-checkers in the Middle East and North Africa; Data Privacy Brasil a public interest research organization focusing on data protection and privacy; and Open Net Korea, which advocates for freedom and openness in South Korea. . This diversity is also reflected in the composition of the new GNI Board which includes a balanced composition of representatives from across GNI’s stakeholder constituencies and is mindful of inclusion and equality.

Onward and Upward!

Through more than a decade and a half of navigating the highs and lows of collaborative consensus-building in complex situations, GNI members have fostered a remarkable level of trust, shaped good practice in the tech space, and influenced emerging regulatory approaches. I am confident that our impact and influence will continue to grow, despite the many headwinds and uncertainties we face. Afterall, there is strength in numbers.

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